SYRIA – The long journey of a Syrian refugee (part 3/4): crossing the sea, from Turkey to Macedonia*


The Redaction of The Maghreb and Orient Courier publishes the story of Nori, a 21-years-old Syrian refugee, in four parts (in its issues of September, October, November and December)*. Nori told our correspondent the story of a journey towards life. He was a citizen of Homs and after his family had fled the war and his brother had died, nothing kept him in his city. He decided to leave his city behind, and the violence, war and misery that went with it. Here is his story.


On Saturday, the 20th of June 2015, my friend Mohamad flew from Lebanon to Istanbul. In the morning, I said goodbye to my friends at work, they wished me luck for the trip, and I headed to the Ataturk airport where I waited for my friend whom I had not seen since 2012 (his last visit to Tal-Bissah).

When he arrived, we went to a cafe, drank and talked about the past. Then we moved to rent a flat for two or three days. He wanted to see Istanbul places, we enjoyed the beautiful places in the city, (we even paid 60 Liras to enter the Hagia Sofia), during nights, we were talking with some of our friends to help us find a man who sails people to Greece. We spoke with a Syrian man who never gave his real name or his location, everyday he used to tell us “tomorrow we move”. Then a friend of mine who was an engineer and had just entered Turkey told me he wanted to travel with us, so he joined us… He asked about every detail of the trip… He was scared of dealing with strange people because he did not trust anybody… At the beginning, he bored us greatly with his thousand inquiries… I asked the man about our way and whether it is a long way to the Greek islands -every time he said “Yes, yes!”. But later we found out that Istanbul would be the starting point and that tomorrow we should drive to an unknown location from which we can sail off to Greece…

We believed him, although the news said that there were no boats sailing to Greece… So, after seven days of promises, we decided to speak with another man, we cancelled our previous contact and went to a man in Izmir. That man told us to come and we would sail on the same night. So we headed to Izmir the next day after we spent a lot of money. The next day we reached the centre of Izmir city, the new man said we should wait at that street after we paid the money (1,050 US$ for each person). We also bought tires in case there would be problems with the boat (a tire is cheaper than a survival jacket).

At 9:00 pm, we moved to a street where the driver would pick us up and would bring us to the coast. The driver was speaking with the group by phone, he could see us but we could not… Finally, he said the trip is cancelled without telling us a reason, and he added: “Tomorrow we can sail to Mitilini.

We were satisfied because the man to whom we spoke has good reputation. We paid 45 liras for one room.

The next day, we were 30 people, got into a small car in which it was hard to breathe and we suffered from 18:10 to 21:45 as the coast was moving closer.

Everything had to be done quickly – we got into the small boat, we were 51 people (42 women and men, and 9 children). The driver started driving but we discovered later that he had never driven a boat at all! The man who sat next to him pleaded to everyone not to speak with the driver and not to make noise! After 30 minutes, the motor suddenly stopped and at the same time, our hearts stopped too… The faces changed…. The children started to cry… The driver turned the generator on but the rope was completely out… The driver threw the generator in the sea and said that there are two wooden paddles for use!

Not all the people knew the real problem with the motor.

I was busy calming down a child… Her mother begged me not to leave her as she had another child with her… I checked out the GPS navigation to know if we were really in a big problem… Unfortunately, we were in the middle of the way… Neither the Turkish nor the Greek police could see us…

I didn’t know what the problem was with the motor, I could fix it, it was easy to do it! I didn’t know why the driver acted like that! Maybe he thought that there is no screw driver… But we can use something instead of it!

The boat was like a puppet in the sea… Going left and right…

The waves started to become higher. Somebody tried to call the Greek coast guard, but in vain… We decided to get rid of our bags, first we threw the big bags over board and kept the small ones… After a while, we felt that water was increasingly entering the boat -we thought that there was a hole, but I told them that some water of the waves is entering this boat when they crash the boat’s edge: “Don’t worry about it.”

We scooped the water out of the boat and started paddling with our hands…. But in vain… Still we kept trying… It was better than sitting around, blaming others and feeling cold…

So, we found a way that four or five guys would swim and push the boat forward… But the boat only moved about 400 meters forward… We then faced another problem: one of the guys in the water was falling behind, further and further… They managed to help him….There were a family from Iraq in the boat, they were Shia, one of them started praying to Fatima Alzahra for help (Fatima is the daughter of the Prophet) -he didn’t try to help the others, he thought that Alzahra could hear and help him.

Again one tried to call the Greek coast guard for help… But nothing happened… We continued trying to get the boat closer and closer to the island… Then we noticed a big ship in the distance… But it was very far away from us, about 5 km away. Children were crying… They were wet and cold… I covered a child with my jacket and hugged her to make her feel warm and safe… Told her lies that soon we would reach home… Some people tried to ask God for help…

At 3 o’clock, we noticed a light moving, it was about 3 or 4 km away.

When we saw the light, we were very, very happy… Everybody started to shout and others were shouting and using their phone flash as a signal… The light went back and we could not do anything… 20 minutes later, the light came again, moving left and right… We made our flashes on and off for a better signal and kept shouting…. And again the light disappeared… After 3 minutes, it was already closer and started sailing around us and they used their big flash for searching until they found us… The light was off and they came from another side… They came closer and closer… One of them talked to us with a speaker, their ship was about 200 or 300 hundred meters… The voice was “Are you Syrian?”, he said this sentence like a captain. We said “Yes, all of us… Please, help… We have children with us!” All of us spoke English even if some didn’t know English… And he said “Silent! Silent!” Then he asked “How many are you?” Their ship was moving around as he was speaking with us… We replied… I said we are fifty one…He said: “Thirty minutes and we come back with a big ship… Big ship… We are coming back!

They sailed around us two times and then they left.

We were waiting without any move… Just feeling cold… All our clothes were wet…. The air was cold… We were trembling…. Waiting for 1 hour and 20 minutes until they came back with the big ship.

We told the women to take their children and to get onto the ship first… Then we got onto the ship… I checked my cigarettes, I took one for me and the people around me took the rest… You could hear percussion coming from our teeth… We were freezing…

About one hour and half later, we reached the coast where there was a police station… We got down to register our names. All the Iraqis said that they are Syrian when registering!

After that, we were so happy because we could survive… They drove us to a camp by buses…At 6:15 am we entered the camp…

First, we made fire to warm our clothes, the cigarettes and our shoes… We spoke with a Syrian man about the position in the camp… We bought a small tent for 25 € from someone who could leave the camp… Checked out our stuff and how much water had reached our belongings… Then we ate something and fell into deep sleep.

The weather was so hot in Mitilini, the camp was so bad, chaos had to be the name of the camp…

People there used to be out of the camp after 4 days (at least for the Syrians, but others, I don’t know).

There was a car, which used to bring breakfast and lunch for the refugees… The camp was divided into two parts; one for the Syrians and the other one was for the Afghans.

On the fourth day, with papers, I left and got a ticket to Athens for 42€. When we reached Athens, we turned to Amonia by train (for free because there was something like elections). There, we bought internet cards from two ladies, we had breakfast and people said we must go to Saloniki by bus at 2 o’clock. We bought some food for the way, and sat in a garden to think about what we would do. We met 3 Syrians (2 Kurdish and 1 Arabic)… They were good friends, we met them in the camp… One of them needed to receive money from an office, so I and Mohammad stayed with them until he got the money.

We arrived in Saloniki at midnight and searched for a hotel around the station, we took rest, had showers and chatted with our friend, the engineer… Next day, we got the bus to Poly Castro, but not for Avizoni (the last station at the border). We were not allowed to take the bus to Avezoni!

In Poly Castro, we had to take a taxi; and the taxi driver must see our papers and he could drive with only 4 people… but we were 5… So we decide to walk to Avezoni by using the GPS (3 hours walking).

We had to go to Haara Hotel which is near the border… We walked with a group to enter Macedonia in the morning.

We were stopped by the police at the border… There were so many families; I and my friend helped the family on the road carrying their children, so we entered the border with them. We walked for about 2 hours to the train station… We were about 25 people, when we arrived in the village, we were being received warmly by a team… Some of us cried for this scene (tears caused by their sympathy)… They guided us to the train station and offered us everything except cigarettes… They were very kind… We saw our friend the engineer there, he got into the train without a paper, but we waited until evening to get papers, which allow refugees to move freely over the country. We bought tickets for 20 € to the last village before the border to Serbia…

The train was full of people, most of them were standing up. We got down and had some food before reaching the border… The weather was so hot.

We walked through the forests and got rid of our stuff because we became tired and needed so much water… When we got the border, we were not allowed to enter Serbia, not even the families, only three or four families were allowed to pass when there were many more…

When the mass of people approached the boarder, we were kept back with sticks!

We were forced to sleep in the forest, about 300 meters away from the police… And we had to have some of us to stay awake… There were many thieves (the man who drove the boat from Turkey to the island had paid only 200 $ because he wanted to be the driver)… And some depended on stealing to complete their trip!

On the next morning, we tried many times to get in through the left and then the right, passing by the police under the sun’s burning rays.

But they always stopped us with their car and told us the two same fatal words over and over again: “Go Macedonia !


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Amhed Sayed

Journalist (Homs - SYRIA)

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